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Radio's digital play

Satellite radio had better be quick about signing up subscribers. By 2004, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of AM and FM stations will be striking back with second channels of CD-quality service.

In-Band, On-Channel (IBOC) technology, which will allow every station to overlay its existing analog service with a digital one, still has testing, standards-setting and regulatory hurdles to overcome. But the first IBOC signals could be on the air by the end of 2002.

Potentially, IBOC is conventional radio's answer to satellite radio and Web radio —two other media looking to steal listeners. In addition to that CD-quality, the IBOC signal can also transmit data to cell phones and portable digital devices.

iBiquity Digital Corp., Columbia, Md., is developing the technology. It successfully completed tests of the FM version and has sent the results along to the National Radio Systems Committee (NRSC), which will set the standard and ask the FCC to codify it. iBiquity and other IBOC proponents hope the FCC will act in first quarter 2002.

Testing of the AM version won't be completed until October. That puts its timetable several months behind that of the FM version.

Anticipating prompt NRSC and FCC action, iBiquity has already licensed the technology to such transmitter manufacturers as Broadcast Electronics, Harris Corp. and Nautel. Terms of the license were not disclosed.

The manufacturers say they will integrate technology into digital transmitters and exciters that will be introduced at NAB 2002.

Once the technology is widely available, most expect a smooth transition to digital. The cost for radio stations, in both equipment and manpower, will be far less than the up to $3 million investment that TV broadcasters are having to make to launch digital stations, according to Harris Vice President, Transmission, Dale Mowry.

That's because IBOC signals don't require their own broadcast antennas and some existing analog AM transmitters can be retrofitted for IBOC with a new exciter and a few auxiliary items for $35,000. The price increases to $250,000 if an AM station does a full upgrade.

On the FM side, the investment ranges from $110,000, if equipment is required to convert an analog tube transmitter to digital solid-state technology, to the full $250,000. Mowry predicts many stations will use IBOC equipment to operate both an analog and digital channel in the same band for several years.

iBiquity is licensing the technology to consumer electronics manufacturers; some have said they will introduce IBOC receivers at the Consumer Electronics Show in January 2003. The company is also talking to car manufacturers. Hyundai has said it will equip its cars with IBOC radios in 2003.